In Memory of Terry Bisson

By Nisi Shawl

Mama said there’d be days like this.  My friend Terry Bisson is dead and gone.  He was an author and editor extraordinaire, able to whip out words in such an order, with such a tastiness, that we who read them could only gasp and gulp them down and ask for more.

Well there ain’t gonna be any.

If you want the statistical particulars of Terry’s life, I invite you to use what’s left of the currently-embattled internet to search for those particulars.  From me you’ll get only two lines: He was born on February 12, 1942, in Kentucky.  He died on January 10, 2024, in California.  His life was lived between those two lines, though, and his life is what most of us care about.  His life and how it touched me are my topics for the rest of this obituary.

How did I meet Terry?  It’s easier to say how I met his work.  I first found it in the Bears Discover Fire collection.  I savored his writing’s crucial elements: a wit so dry it absorbed its surroundings like a transformative sponge and squeezed everything back out as all-encompassing humor; an insight so keen it vanquished the boundaries between parallel universes; and an unshakeable commitment to telling the truth, no matter how strange that truth might seem.  From this beginning I moved on to Talking Man, Fire on the Mountain, Voyage to the Red Planet, The Pickup Artist, TVA Baby, Numbers Don’t Lie, and Greetings.  I list these titles in no particular order except that the last three are also short story collections, and the last one I reviewed for the Seattle Times.  I won’t say I “got” every story there was to get in Greetings, but “The Old Rugged Cross,” Terry’s matter-of-fact account of a death row inmate’s gruesome voluntary crucifixion (“Stand, honk, breathe, honk.”) has stayed with me for decades now.

In 1996, Terry taught Week One of the Clarion West Six-Week Workshop.  I teach writers, too, and you better believe I’ve had my students read (often aloud, before their classes, like actors) Terry’s sweetly devastating “They’re Made out of Meat,” which consists of three pages of tagless yet deeply telling dialogue.  When I edited my volume of the Aqueduct Press WisCon Chronicles series, I asked Terry to contribute another of these inimitable dialogue-only short stories of his.  He responded with “Racial Identity and Writing: Partial Transcript of a WisCon 2010 Panel,” a fabricated transcription of an imaginary panel composed of Octavia E. Butler, James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson, Samuel Clemens, and Zora Neale Hurston.  It was just as much fun and just as wicked as the title makes it sound.

So yes, I got to edit Terry.  And Terry edited me, too, for his iconic Outspoken Author series published by PM Press.  OAs are slim books, but very carefully curated.  Some things I sent him for inclusion Terry rejected–quickly and, it seemed to me, quite easily.  He requested the nonfiction (an essay on the harmonious relationship between religion and science) right away.  That surprised me.  His interview questions were also pretty unexpected.  Especially the ones about the kind of car I drove and how I’d achieved my counterculture cred and whether I like superhero movies. It all surprised me.

He’s not going to be surprising me from now on.

My mother said this would happen.  She was right; it’s happening.  I and everyone else who knew Terry have lost part of our world.  The webs we weave with each other and the gentle stirrings we feel along the threads of those webs have dried up and blown away.  Terry Bisson’s genius way with words is at an end.  What we have left are the delicious pages and paragraphs and sentences he has given us.  Those live on.  And their contexts, the ways they mean exactly what they mean to us, and our memories of his vernacular brilliance?  Those live on while we do, too.

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